The Cambridge School District is scaling back on the cost of a proposed high school performing arts center, including possibly eliminating an orchestra pit, after a community survey showed what had been suggested is too pricey for many residents to support.

School Perceptions, a Slinger, Wis., research firm, sent out 3,000 surveys on the school district’s behalf between early October and early November, and the district received about 1,000 responses through the mail and online.

School Perceptions representative Bill Foster shared the survey results at a meeting Nov. 12 of a task force that has been working toward an April 2020 referendum.

Foster said 49 percent of respondents answered that they would not support a referendum to add a $14.4 million performing arts center to Cambridge High School. Another 12 percent were undecided and 39 percent were supportive.

When results were further broken out, 58 percent of residents who aren’t school district staff or parents of students were opposed, Foster said.

The lack of a clear mandate from the community is a red flag for the passage of a referendum, Foster said.

“If this proposed question were put onto a ballot today, I’d say it would not be successful,” Foster told the task force.

The price tag, which was listed as $14.4 million on the survey, appears to be a key reason for opposition, Foster said.

“It’s really about cost. Cost is a big driver for most people,” Foster said. “The plan as proposed is arguably, probably a little too expensive.”

That was echoed at the task force meeting by community members in the audience.

“In the Village of Cambridge, we have enough things coming down on us right now, it’s not pretty,” said one audience member. “We’re not against the idea. I’m a believer that if you have the money to do it, great. You don’t have the money, which is going to put some people in some problems.”

Task force members, who have been charged with bringing a proposal to the School Board for an April 2020 referendum, admitted the survey results are disappointing.

However, “it makes us focus down to, at the end, what do we want or need?’ Nikolay Middle School band teacher Colleen Larsen said.

The task force’s ultimate response was to scale back the scope of the proposal, bringing the cost under $10 million.

Eppstein Uhen Architects, an architectural firm the district hired to consult on the project, presented less costly concepts as the Nov. 12 discussion continued.

Task force co-chair Eddie Pahuski said reducing the square footage, cutting features and not exceeding $10 million was the goal. That was achieved through a line-by-line assessment of the proposal.

Under $10 million

Architect Julie Graham, of Eppstein Uhen Architects, went on to present two revised concepts to the task force, each coming in under $10 million.

One would locate the performing arts center on the east side of CHS near the football stadium, at a cost of $9.8 million. The other would place it on the west side of the high school building off the west parking lot, at a cost of $9.99 million.

The east side location would cost school district property owners $76 per $100,000 of assessed property value each year for 20 years. The west side option would cost $78 per $100,000.

On Tuesday night, CHS band director Nathan Gerlach also suggested situating the arts center on the north wall of the building, by the soccer field. Consultants offered to explore this new location as a third option, and present details about it at the next task force meeting on Nov. 20.

No orchestra pit?

To bring the cost down to under $10 million, amenities are proposed to be scaled back.

The $14.4 million performing arts center presented on this fall’s survey included a lobby, a 500-seat house, a flex rehearsal space, an orchestra pit, dressing rooms, bathrooms, storage spaces, a light booth, a control room and a scene dock.

Some of those features would be reduced in the new plans, including the number of restrooms, sound and lighting systems and the size of the lobby.

The flex rehearsal space, orchestra pit, new music rooms and wrestling space renovations were all removed from the new plans and new estimates under $10 million, said Jay Thomsen from Vogel Bros. Building Co., the district’s construction managing consultant.

The potential loss of the orchestra pit was a point of contention for the task force.

Task force members were hesitant to write off an orchestra pit completely, spending part of the lengthy Nov. 12 meeting talking about its value to students and musical productions.

“This is a painful, disappointing thing if we end up without (a pit), but on the other hand, we want to do whatever we can to make it affordable,” Superintendent Bernie Nikolay said. “I think we need to talk more about it.”

Nathan Gerlach added that if the task force picks a concept without a pit, the music department would need a plan for where instrumentalists would sit.

Task force members tossed around the potential for privately fundraising for the orchestra pit, using multimedia systems to remotely add orchestra music during productions, or adding removable seats to create space for musician seating.

Some amenities were also added to the new plans, like a piano storage space or expanded parking for the west side option.

Bill Foster said referendums tend to be more successful if the total cost is under $10 million, and if the annual impact on a resident’s tax bill is under $100 per $100,000 of property value.

When a tax impact is over $100 per property owner, “that becomes real money,” Foster said.

With a $14.4 million referendum, property owners could have expected to pay $126 per $100,000 of their property value every year for 20 years.

Administrators and task force members said they are wary of scaling back too much.

“We don’t want to build a (performing arts center) that doesn’t meet our or the community needs,” said Pahuski. “If we build something that’s substandard, or just isn’t right, or is going to be more of a problem than a benefit, probably we shouldn’t do it.”

Nikolay said having fewer than 500 seats wouldn’t allow the combined student bodies of the middle and high school to come together for assemblies, arts performances and other events, which has been a key goal.

“That was the one thing that we tried to save,” Nikolay said. “If this would get built...and it’s too small from day one, we would be criticized for that.”

“There’s not any point in doing this to such a low cost where it’s not something we’re going to be proud of,” he added.

The task force meets again Nov. 20, to discuss the operating costs, a north location and a modified western location. Members will also try to finalize a proposal for the School Board.

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